- Coming off a Week 11 loss to Auburn, Georgia has to regroup against a surprisingly stout Kentucky team. The Bulldogs' slim playoff hopes depend on it.
Going into Saturday’s game against unranked Kentucky, No. 7 Georgia has already clinched the SEC East and a berth to face Auburn or Alabama in the conference’s title game. But after losing to Auburn last week in grand fashion—the Tigers won 40-17—the Bulldogs’ playoff aspirations are on the ropes. Lose this week against Kentucky, and Kirby Smart’s team can count itself out. But win out—including in the SEC title game against a team that’s almost certain to be ranked in the top four at the time—and Georgia has as good a case as any team at being included among the ranks of the four playoff teams.
So why this week, you ask, is the pressure highest on Georgia? It’s won seven straight against Kentucky and is 56-12-2 against the Wildcats over time. But Mark Stoops’s team is 7-3 and poised to finish with its best record in a decade. Should it win out, including a bowl game, it’d reach a win total it hasn’t seen since 1977. The Wildcats are no automatic win for Georgia—plus, the Bulldogs haven’t had more on the line this season than they do this week. Sure, a sloppy loss to an inferior team might have shaken up their playoff bid earlier in the year, but that didn’t happen, and we’ve now reached the point where a two-loss Georgia team is almost certainly out of the hunt.
The game against Kentucky will pit the No. 10 rushing attack in the country—Georgia’s top two backs, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, have combined for 19 touchdowns on 1,625 yards this season—against the No. 19 rushing defense. Kentucky has allowed opponents just 121.9 yards of rushing per game this year; meanwhile Georgia is averaging 256. Something will have to give, and it’ll likely be Kentucky. Of the Wildcats’ opponents thus far in 2017, Mississippi State and Missouri are the only two with top-40 rushing offenses, and they rushed for 282 and 213 yards, respectively against Kentucky. The Bulldogs won handily and the Tigers lost by a touchdown.
If Chubb and Michel can play like they have all season, Georgia should be golden. Kentucky’s pass defense has been downright abysmal all season, allowing opponents an average of more than 280 yards per game, meaning that QB Jake Fromm (who’s been more than just a game manager even as a true freshman backup forced into a starting role) might be able to let loose on the Wildcats as well. The Georgia defense has been inconsistent at times this season, shutting out Tennesee and holding Mississippi State to three points while also allowing Missouri 28 points and Auburn 40, but Kentucky’s offense hasn’t been prodigious, and as long as the Bulldogs don’t put up another defensive performance like last week’s, they should be just fine.
Still, it’s impossible to predict how a team coming off its first loss and facing the most pressure it’s faced all year will perform. Playing at home will help—the Auburn loss came on the road—as will the clarity of the stakes. Lose, and this is a good season. Win, and Georgia has a chance for something great. It gets Georgia Tech next week in the teams’ annual rivalry game, which won’t be a cakewalk but seems manageable at the end of an inconsistent season for the Yellowjackets. And from there, it’ll either get an Alabama team that’ll almost certainly be ranked No. 1 or Auburn and a chance at redemption. Winning either of those matchups would almost certainly elevate Georgia back into the top four and guarantee the Bulldogs’ best season since it won the Sugar Bowl in 2002.